The title Veteran’s Day: The Tom Russell Anthology was probably chosen to serve as a reminder that Russell has been writing and singing his songs for over 30 years, that he has been celebrated and covered by fellow musicians and that he is a veteran. Really, though, the title only works as a reminder of Russell’s song “Veteran’s Day” and of how well he writes songs about social issues without seeming like he’s doing so. He writes songs about the country that are, more importantly, songs about people (in this case about a Vietnam War POW) who remember and forgot him and the WWII vets who received a different sort of welcome. The song still has a message to it (“Leave a light in the window tonight for Jimmy McGrew”) but also details scenes and people. And it’s actually more message-y, less human-focused than many of the other great songs that make up this two-disc chronological retrospective of Russell’s music.
Much of the set walks this way, taking on the USA, its problems, both historical and contemporary, by focusing on people. “US Steel” depicts a steel plant closing after 100 years through scenes of the workers’ last lunchtime meal at the plant, of family pain and of men drinking the pain away. “Manzanar” recalls the war-time internment of Japanese-Americans, starting with one man telling his story. The song affords its heavy-handedness because the facts of the matter are still under-recognized in the US. “Big Water”, with the great Iris Dement on backing vocals, provides a stirring tale of life on the Midwestern floodplains. “California Snow” looks at the human costs of immigration through the eyes of a border agent. With a few exceptions (most notably “Who’s Gonna Build Your Wall?”, a direct but timely dig at anti-immigration activists), these songs do not make political points. Rather, each chronicles times changing, the forces of old and new conflicting and the human impact of that.
Russell is also a pro at telling great stories, period. This set includes many riveting examples of storytelling through song. Several are portraits of people, fictional or real, and their stories, like “Kid From Spavinaw”, about a baseball player and his miner dad and “Isaac Lewis”, another father/son tale set in Wales. “Halley’s Comet” depicts Bill Haley breaking down at the end of his life, without fanfare. “Joshua Tree” pays tribute to Gram Parsons in an indirect, poetic way. “Throwing Horseshoes at the Moon” is a remarkable, autobiographical song, about Russell’s father, a gambler.
In some of Russell’s best songs, he draws on his surroundings — he lives on the El Paso/Juarez border — or taps into the greater mythology of the West. “Gallo del Cielo”, which has been brilliantly covered by Joe Ely and others, is a cockfighting story that efficiently tells a much larger story, about legends told across generations, the times when those legends fall apart and what that says about destiny, about humanity, about belief. “The Sky Above, the Mud Below”, an old-fashioned outlaw tale of thieves, carries with it moral questions and a foreboding atmosphere.
Another theme snaking its way through this anthology: love. The love songs here all seem to really be about freedom and connection and balancing the human need for both. In “One and One”, Russell and duet partner Shawn Colvin portray ex-lovers now in different states, living their own individual lives, wondering at the same time what went wrong. “Out in California” tells a similar story of separation from the perspective of the man on the move, thinking of his would-be lover’s new life in another state with another man. “Outbound Plane”, co-written by Nanci Griffith, depicts love, as always, leaving but always coming back: “You can walk away from love / But you’ll fall head over heels again.”
One of his strangest and most interesting breakup songs, “Touch of Evil”, connects a relationship dissolving with scenes and themes from the film of the same name. Russell, who has written so descriptively about the US-Mexico border, here sings of the “borderline between a woman and a man”. He who never paints love, or life, as a picnic sings here of “the touch of evil living in our souls”. The song is film criticism as well as storytelling. Similarly, the anthology ends with the cinema-referencing “Roll the Credits”, a new recording. Russell’s story-songs often beg to be referred to as cinematic and no doubt have been. Though some detours to France and the UK are abroad, the anthology, as a whole, seems a quintessential American film, with people of all sorts coming into view, living tough yet interesting lives amidst larger forces of constriction, destruction and deterioration.